Thursday, September 11, 2014

From Lawrence Phillips to Ray Rice:The Times, They Are A'Changing

Lawrence Phillips was an outstanding running back for the Nebraska Cornhuskers. He was arrested during his junior year for assaulting Kate McEwen, his ex-girlfriend. “Assault” is an understatement. She was at a teammate’s apartment around 4:00am, when he pushed her into the bathroom, knocked her down, dragged her by her hair our of the apartment, and down three flights of stairs into the foyer. Her screams for help resulted in others pulling Phillips off her. (Thanks to Sport Illustrated Vault). Coach Tom Osborne initially kicked him off the team, but quickly changed it to an indefinite suspension. He sat out 6 games before reinstatement. Lawrence Phillips was one of the stars on the team. He gained 1,722 rushing yards during his sophomore season as Nebraska won the national title. He gained 165 yards on 25 carries in the Fiesta Bowl where #1 Nebraska trounced #2 Florida 62-24 to win a consecutive national title. Lawrence Phillips came from a troubled background, growing up in foster homes in Los Angeles. He had anger management issues. Coach Osborne, in what was a decision and statement of shame for The Coach and the University of Nebraska, said: “It’s not as though Lawrence is an angry young man all the time and a threat to society. But there are occasions every four to five months where he becomes a little explosive.” (Again, thanks to the Sports Illustrated Vault). Tom Osborne won a total of four national championships at Nebraska, was elected to Congress, and then became Nebraska’s Athletic Director. Kate McEwen was a 5’8’ forward on the Nebraska team. She had suffered a series of beatings by Phillips. Her basketball coach initially cancelled her scholarship in April, but subsequently reinstated it after a public outcry. Ms. McEwen received death threats. She decided not to play the next year. Lawrence Phillips turned pro after the Fiesta Bowl. He normally would have been the top pick in the draft, but five teams passed on him until the St. Louis Rams selected him as the sixth pick in the draft. His NFL and CFL career was highlighted by criminal problems. Lawrence Phillips was sentenced to 31 years in prison in California in 2009 for two incidents. In one he drove his car into three teenagers and in the other he attacked a former girlfriend. I used the Lawrence Phillips violence against Kate McEwen for several years in my Torts class as an example of tortious conduct, that was not always fully addressed by society. Both college and major league sports tolerated a culture of violence off the field and out of the arena, but law enforcement agencies began to rigorously enforce the law. Sexual assaults were prosecuted, as were batteries, robberies, DWI’s, and drug incidents. The mores of society were changing. Athletes were not as “privileged” or “entitled” as they were into the 1970’s. Yet the leagues did not react to domestic violence. Major League Baseball was probably the most oblivious. Commissioner Bud Selig, who could not see a steroid when it was waved in front of his face, also could not see a wife beater. Brett Miller pitched at Fenway Park 36 hours after being arrested for domestic violence. After a night of boozing, he dragged his wife by the hair and hit her. Bobby Cox was a long-time MLB manager, mostly with the Atlanta Braves. His wife, Pamela Cox, phone the police on May 9, 1995. She said he called her a “bitch,” hit her in the face, and pulled her by the hair. He was arrested for battery. It was apparently far from the first time. They subsequently held a press conference wherein she said everything was a misunderstanding. Bobby Cox was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York on July 27, 2014. Julio Lugo shoved his wife into a car in 2008 and played another 8 years in MLB. MLB took no action against any player or coach accused of domestic violence over 25 years. Let me add though that whether we call it “domestic violence,” “spousal abuse,” “violence against women,” or wife beating,” the problem is pervasive throughout society. Even police chiefs have been involved. Nor is it exclusively a matter of male violence against women, although that constitutes a majority of the incidents. Lawyers started using decades ago what was then called “the battered wife syndrome” as a form of self-defense. Governors often commuted prison sentences for women who showed they were the victims of domestic violence. Public mores have been changing. Domestic violence cases, once a low priority for law enforcement are now a high priority. My law school, Chapman Law School, offers a Domestic Violence Clinic in cooperation with the Anaheim Police Department. Sports though have been slow to respond. Winning is the priority, although many colleges in recent years have been quick to toss miscreants off their teams. Professional team owners recognize the fan base will tolerate off-field problems as long as the players win on the field. Ray Rice played for the Baltimore Ravens, as did Ray Lewis, who dodged a murder rap. Owners, as we learn from Donald Sterling, may also have issues of their own. Ray Rice, or more accurately, the Ray Rice videos have changed the picture. Social media may have an instant impact on public perception. Football is a game of violence, which explains much of its popularity. Whatever drives players, such as Ray Rice, Lawrence Phillips, Aaron Hernandez, or O.J. Simpson to excel on the field, may also drive their off-field behavior. Their fame served as a shield. The NFL is currently paying the price for its past inaction. Let’s see what MLB will do.

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